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Holy Grail of High Pressure Physics: Researchers Create Superconductor That Can Take Man to Mars

Scientist made a superconductor breakthrough that could be an electronics revolution allowing us to make superfast chips, superfast maglev trains and rocket fuel that can take man to Mars
Holy Grail of High Pressure Physics: Researchers Create Metallic Hydrogen That Can Take Man to Mars

U.S. scientists have succeeded in squeezing hydrogen so intensely that it has turned into a metal, creating an entirely new material that might be used as superconductor at room temperatures, Joinfo.com reports with reference to Daily Mail Online.

The discovery, published in the journal Science, provides the first confirmation of a theory proposed in 1935 by physicists Hillard Bell Huntington and Eugene Wigner that hydrogen, normally a gas, could occur in a metallic state if exposed to extreme pressure.

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Several teams have been racing to develop metallic hydrogen, which is highly prized because of its potential as a superconductor, a material that is extremely efficient at conducting electricity.

Room Temperature Superconductors

Currently, superconductors such as those used in a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, machines must be cooled with liquid helium to keep them at extremely low temperatures, which is costly.

‘This is the holy grail of high-pressure physics,’ Harvard physicist Isaac Silvera, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement.

‘It’s the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at something that’s never existed before.’

‘One prediction that’s very important is metallic hydrogen is predicted to be meta-stable,’ Silvera said.

‘That means if you take the pressure off, it will stay metallic, similar to the way diamonds form from graphite under intense heat and pressure, but remains a diamond when that pressure and heat is removed.’

Understanding whether the material is stable is important, Silvera said, because predictions suggest metallic hydrogen could act as a superconductor at room temperatures.

‘That would be revolutionary,’ he said. ‘As much as 15 percent of energy is lost to dissipation during transmission, so if you could make wires from this material and use them in the electrical grid, it could change that story.’

Among the holy grails of physics, a room temperature superconductor, Dias said, could radically change our transportation system, making magnetic levitation of high-speed trains possible, as well as making electric cars more efficient and improving the performance of many electronic devices.

A room temperature superconductor, Dias said, could change our transportation system, making magnetic levitation of high-speed trains possible, as well as making electric cars more efficient and improving the performance of many electronic devices.

Energy Storage Improvements

The material could also provide major improvements in energy production and storage.

Because superconductors have zero resistance, superconducting coils could be used to store excess energy, which could then be used whenever it is needed.

David Ceperley, a physics professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who was not involved in the research, said the discovery, if confirmed, would end a decades-long quest to see how hydrogen can become a metal, adding to the understanding of the most common element in the universe.

To achieve this feat, Silvera and post-doctoral fellow Ranga Dias squeezed a tiny hydrogen sample at more than 71.7 million pounds per square inch (32.5 million kg per 6.5 square cm), greater than the pressure at the center of the Earth.

The scientists created this force using synthetic diamonds mounted opposite each other in a device known as a diamond anvil cell.

Using two diamonds, scientists squeezed hydrogen to pressures above those in Earth's core. Sang-Heon Shim, Arizona State University

Using two diamonds, scientists squeezed hydrogen to pressures above those in Earth’s core. Sang-Heon Shim, Arizona State University

 

David Ceperley, a physics professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who was not involved in the research, said the discovery, if confirmed, would end a decades-long quest to see how hydrogen can become a metal, adding to the understanding of the most common element in the universe.

To achieve this feat, Silvera and post-doctoral fellow Ranga Dias squeezed a tiny hydrogen sample at more than 71.7 million pounds per square inch (32.5 million kg per 6.5 square cm), greater than the pressure at the center of the Earth.

The scientists created this force using synthetic diamonds mounted opposite each other in a device known as a diamond anvil cell.

They treated the diamonds with a special process to keep them from cracking, a problem that has foiled prior experiments.

‘This is just at the point when the diamonds are about to crack,’ Ceperley said.

‘That is why it’s taken so long. Silvera had new ways of shaping the diamonds and polishing them so they wouldn’t break.’

A key question is whether the pressurized hydrogen maintains its metallic properties at room temperature, which would make it extremely useful as a superconductor.

Both Ceperley and Silvera believe this will be the case, but it still needs to be proven.

Way to Mars

Metallic hydrogen could also play a key role in helping humans explore the far reaches of space, as a more powerful rocket propellant.

‘It takes a tremendous amount of energy to make metallic hydrogen,’ Silvera explained.

‘And if you convert it back to molecular hydrogen, all that energy is released, so that would make it the most powerful rocket propellant known to man, and could revolutionize rocketry.’

The most powerful fuels in use today are characterized by a ‘specific impulse’ (a measure, in seconds, of how fast a propellant is fired from the back of a rocket) of 450 seconds.

The specific impulse for metallic hydrogen, by comparison, is theorized to be 1,700 seconds.

‘That would easily allow you to explore the outer planets,’ Silvera said.

‘We would be able to put rockets into orbit with only one stage, versus two, and could send up larger payloads, so it could be very important.’